Our third topic: What book(s) meant the most to you in your late teens and 2os – during college or not, as you moved into adulthood?
Secrets of the Samurai, by Oscar Ratti and Adele Westbrook. This remains one of my favorite history books on the samurai. There are books with loftier academic credentials, but you’re not going to find a more approachable text. The artwork is killer too. Many of the line drawings make you consider getting a tattoo.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig. For years this was my bible. I read it over and over again—in the library, on the beach, everywhere. Back then I was a student of Asian philosophy, and I couldn’t afford a motorcycle. Now that I have my bike, I think I need to reread this one.
The Silmarillion, by J.R.R. Tolkien and Christopher Tolkien. I’d read The Hobbit in grade school, followed by many readings and re-readings of The Lord of the Rings. It wasn’t until college that I got into the real heady stuff, but now I think The Silmarillion is the best book on my Tolkien shelf.
(Yeah, I have a Tolkien shelf. Books by and books about. Some are in German. I know, I know. I’m a nerd.)
The Wheel of Time series, by Robert Jordan. Not easy books to contend with in college—not because of the writing but because of space constraints. I think the hardcover editions took up 20% of my half of the dorm room.
The first three Dune books, by Frank Herbert. For me these three are to sci-fi what The Lord of the Rings is to fantasy: mandatory reading for anyone who claims to be a fan of the genre. (I think the books drop off in quality pretty rapidly after Children of Dune.)
J. Kathleen Cheney:
I’d say that one of the most formative reads during that period was a book that very few people will recognize: The Pursuit of the Screamer by Ansen Dibell (and its two sequels: Circle, Crescent, Star and Summerfair). Much of this was that it hit me at just the right time in my formative years, but it also had several concepts in it that I found very thought-provoking. Now if you pick up this book (and please, ignore the lurid cover!) it will look a lot like a fantasy novel. It’s not. It’s science fiction dressed as fantasy.
One of the book’s major plot points was the rebodying of the ‘screamers’ (an alien species called the Tek) by a giant fish brain (the Shai) in their spaceship buried under a vast plateau. The humans on this planet were originally put there by the Tek, and the indigenous species–the empathic Valde–were then altered by those same Tek to be able to interbreed with the humans, which unfortunately caused imbalances within their own species but granted some humans limited empathy.
So there we have it: the separation of the body and mind, empaths, genetic alteration, interbreeding of species, and a giant fish brain running a buried spaceship. What else could we possibly want in a novel???
I admit it sounds rather crazy, but the author skillfully wove these disparate elements into a fascinating series of novels that made me think and rethink and then rethink again. So much so that when I learned that the 4th and 5th book in the series had been published in French, I found copies of those and read them. Amazing.
Being a social sciences and English geek, I read a lot in college. However, one class in particular had the greatest impact on me: Humanist and English Renaissance Literature. I discovered Donne and Milton. I loved Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, once I got into the rhythm of it, and based my term paper on it.
There was one work we read that was short yet very vital to me: “The Duchess of Malfi” by John Webster. It’s a Jacobean tragedy. There is a point where the Duchess is confronted by her assassin and she says to him, ‘I am the Duchess of Malfi still.’ We discussed it in class. Normally those kinds of “what is really meant by this line” analyses made me roll my eyes, but not that time. The Duchess struck me as such a powerful character in that moment–a role model, really. At the time, I was twenty and engaged to marry a Navy sailor in a few months. I was going to move to the opposite side of the country and into a life of poverty. I was terrified. I yearned for even the slightest scrap of the Duchess’s dignity.
When I write active heroines now, I want them to be like the Duchess of Malfi. I want them to confront the bad guy, look him in the eye, and say, “You might do all of these horrible things to me, but my dignity is mine.” I still want that nobility for myself, too.
M. K. Hutchins:
I’m going to cheat and jump to one year after college. My husband and I both graduated in 2008—straight into the recession. There were no jobs. Not even crummy, minimum-wage ones (“Oh, you have a degree? We’d rather hire a high school grad or drop out who might choose to work here long-term”). A year later—still with no steady work—I was an exhausted husk of a human being.
But I was still devouring everything Brandon Sanderson puts out, so I found myself reading Alcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystallia. It’s book #3 in what I think is Sanderson’s least-known series—a hilarious Middle Grade fantasy where the main character, Alcatraz, faces down evil librarians bent on world domination. I laughed so hard I fell off the bed. I laughed until my ribs hurt. I laughed like I hadn’t laughed for the past year.
That book helped me cope with the soul-sucking uncertainty of searching for work. I had energy again to pursue even the most temporary and far-fetched avenues of income—like entering recipe contents. I actually won one of those and was rewarded with a check and publication in Better Homes & Gardens.
Alcatraz also taught me there’s no way to know what effect a book will have on someone. I started writing whatever I thought was fun and interesting instead of “serious, meaningful fiction”. Both personally and professionally, the most important book I’ve read in the past decade is a comedic, fast-paced Middle Grade adventure.
Lawrence M. Schoen:
My undergrad years were a mess. It took me six years. Along the way I dropped out of university, lost my scholarship, worked on a loading dock, went back to a different school, changed my major three times, and eventually petitioned the university to let me design my own.
I tell you all of this because it provides the background for the book that kept me whole during that time, Roger Zelazny’s Doorways in the Sand. It’s the story of Fred Cassidy, a young man whose uncle wills a healthy stipend to his nephew until he completes an undergraduate degree. Fred chooses never to graduate! As the novel begins he’s been in school more than a decade, always changing majors one class short of a degree. He’s outlasted multiple academic advisors and authored academic papers worthy of dissertations! Fred Cassidy is the perpetual student, and he gets caught up in adventures far beyond his dreams. Friends and strangers try to kill him. Aliens disguised as animals pursue him. A missing artifact on loan from a museum on another planet sends him secret messages. If that’s not enough for you, Fred has every cell in his body rotated into its mirror opposite, which in turn changes the flavor of everything he eats and almost guarantees that he’ll be dying of malnutrition because he can no longer process right-handed proteins.
Through it all, Fred draws on insights and experiences that you’d expect from someone who has nearly completed every major at a modern university. Read this book, you come away with that same feeling. It’s empowering, creating a sense of control at a time in a young adult’s life when everything seems to be chaos.
I reread this book every semester during exam week. It put everything in perspective for me.
– The Dictionary of the Khazars, Milorad Pavić. I can’t remember if I read this the summer before my first year of college, or the summer after, but the essential non-linearity of the book (among other things, three different cultures, with interlocking definitions, and characters that change based on which lexicon you read), changed my brain.
– Snowcrash, Neal Stephenson. This came late in college, but it sent me down the gaming rabbit hole. A skateboarding heroine and a pizza deliverator named Hiro Protagonist? You have my attention, Mr. Stephenson.
– “The Evening, The Morning, and The Night,” Octavia Butler. A short story that appeared in my university’s magazine Caillou. My introduction to Butler. The beginning of my infatuation with her work.
– Paradise Lost. John Milton. (I know, I know) I did an honors thesis on this beast; I am still swept up in the micro-writing and secret messaging that goes on in the lines (words spelled down the first letters of each verse, hidden transformations of objects and narrator) along with the overarching pyrotechnics of the prose.
– First Light, Richard Preston. The search for the end of the universe. The book had been out for a while by the time it got to me. I enjoyed it so much that I reflexively buy whatever Preston writes now.
What about you? What were your favorite reads?